Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

Watch Brad Stevens remain completely stoic after Avery Bradley’s game-winning 3 (video)

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Avery Bradley hit a perfectly dramatic shot Friday – a 3-pointer down two with time expiring against the conference’s best team.

When it fell, the Celtics justifiably went wild.

Well, not all the Celtics:

Tweet of the Day: Stephen Curry and crying Jordan

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Stephen Curry is a Carolina guy and a huge Panthers fan — he’s been that way since childhood, this was not a bandwagon jump.

Before the Super Bowl Sunday, he got to pound the drum for the Panthers (who also gave him a locker for the day).

We all know how the game went, it wasn’t a good day for Panthers’ fans. Curry handled it beautifully in this tweet.

Five Takeaways From NBA Sunday: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant at Super Bowl

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Sunday was all about Coldplay… was there something else going on? If you didn’t watch Sunday’s NBA games because you were prepping for a Super Bowl only someone who bet the under could love, here is what you missed from around the NBA Sunday. Which includes some Super Bowl talk.

1) Stephen Curry pounding a drum was not enough for the Panthers. Curry is a Carolina guy — he did not just jump on the Cam Newton/Panthers bandwagon, he’s been a fan for a long time. The Panthers rewarded him on Sunday with a locker and jersey.

They also let him pound the drum for the team pregame. Turns out, that was not enough (apparently Curry cannot secure a win without some help from Draymond Green). But he handled it beautifully on Twitter after the game.

2) Kevin Durant joined the media for a day to be a photographer at the Super Bowl. Kevin Durant’s relationship with the media has been about as smooth as a Kardashian marriage, but since he was in the Bay Area this weekend to take on the Warriors (another Golden State win), he decided to join the media for a day and be a photographer for the Players Tribune. You know, the website that will break Durant’s plans this summer. Follow this link and you can see his account and his photos.

Associated Press
Associated Press

Now, on to actual basketball….

3) Nikola Vucevic saves Magic with fade-away game winner. Orlando looked to be in control of their game with the Hawks, up 11 entering the fourth quarter and leading by eight with 3:30 left in the game — then Atlanta went on an 8-0 run. A Kent Bazemore three with :48 left tied the game at 94-94 (Bazemore finished with 23 points on the day).

But as he had done earlier in the year, Vucevic hit a game-winning fade away (this time over some good defense from Al Horford), and Orlando got the victory.

4) Chris Paul starts slow, finishes fast and Clippers pick up a road win in Miami. Chris Paul and the entire Clippers team started this game out looking like they had the South Beach Flu (after a night on the town). CP3 opened the game 0-of-9. But Paul was 6-of-10 in the second half, and when his shots fell it opened up the roll for a couple of huge DeAndre Jordan alley-oops.

The Clippers got 22 from CP3, another 20 from Jamal Crawford off the bench, and the Clippers kept right on winning with a 100-93 victory against Miami. If you want to nit-pick this team and how the teams above them in the West might attack flaws in the playoffs, go right ahead, but you’ll be missing a fantastic show in the meantime. The Clippers are playing well on the offensive end and just keep winning without Griffin in the lineup.

5) Brad Stevens gets the most out of the talent he has in Boston, George Karl does not in Sacramento. So that matchup went as you would expect. Brad Stevens has proven to be one of GM Danny Ainge’s best moves — and Ainge assembled a title team. He has a team of nice role players as the third seed in the East, with a fantastic defense and enough offense from Isaiah Thomas to get the job done. On the other side, George Karl’s job is in jeopardy in part because he can’t get buy-in from a team with some good talent (except for Rajon Rondo, who likes Karl because Karl has given him carte blanche in the offense). This game was just a contrast of organizations, and as you would expect the Celtics won handily 128-119.

Also, know that Thomas can play a little defense — he blocked a DeMarcus Cousins‘ shot.

Paul shakes off awful start, leads Clippers past Heat 100-93

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) and forward Amare Stoudemire, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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MIAMI (AP) — Chris Paul had the worst possible start to his shooting day.

His finish, however, was perfect.

Paul’s consecutive 3-pointers in the final minutes were daggers to a Miami comeback, and his game-high 22 points helped the Los Angeles Clippers hang on to beat the Heat 100-93 on Sunday.

“I kept shooting it,” Paul said, “because sooner or later it had to go in.”

J.J. Redick scored 14 points, Wesley Johnson had 10 and DeAndre Jordan and Cole Aldrich grabbed 11 rebounds each for the Clippers, who won despite a 1-for-15 start from the field and swept the two-game season series with Miami.

“That was a team win because nobody really had it going,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “But our defense really had it going all game.”

Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic all scored 17 points for Miami. Luol Deng added 15 points for the Heat, and Hassan Whiteside finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

“They did to us what we’ve been doing the last few games, just grinding an opponent,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s what they did to us, then made the bigger plays down the stretch.”

Paul was 0 for 7 in the opening period, the worst one-quarter shooting performance of his NBA career, and was 0 for 9 before he finally got a shot to fall. But his 3-pointers in the fourth snuffed out a Miami rally, and his lob that set up Jordan for a dunk was the clincher for the Clippers – who, after that horrid start, shot 55 percent the rest of the way.

Redick made a layup on the game’s first possession and the Clippers proceeded to misfire on their next 14 shots, but recovered to win for the 11th time in their last 13 road games, most of that with Blake Griffin sidelined by injuries.

“We’re just trying to hold it down until our big fella comes back,” Paul said.

Miami went to the oft-used strategy of intentionally fouling Jordan in the third quarter to slow the Clippers’ offense. And while it worked to a point – Jordan went 3 for 10 from the free throw line in the quarter – Miami couldn’t score. The Heat were 4 for 20 in the third, got down by as many as 11 and never led again.

“They made big plays down the stretch,” Wade said. “That’s the way we’ve been winning of late, so we can’t be mad at that. We got a little taste of our own medicine.”

TIP-INS

Clippers: G Austin Rivers will miss four to six weeks with a broken left hand. For now, the Clippers aren’t planning on making any roster changes to add depth. “We may have to make a decision but we’re just going to try to ride it out,” Doc Rivers said. … Paul has faced the Heat 19 times, and his teams are 13-6 in those games.

Heat: Whiteside took his first charge of the season. … Wade’s first point of the day gave him outright possession of 41st place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He came into the game tied with John Stockton at 19,711 points. … Deng has scored at least 15 points in five of his last six games.

 

SUPER SATELLITE

The Clippers were using a different plane than usual for their postgame flight from Miami to Philadelphia, for Super Bowl 50 reasons. They changed planes in order to have satellite television access so they wouldn’t miss any of the Carolina-Denver game.

“It’s really nice of the NBA to have us play today and then travel during the Super Bowl,” Doc Rivers said. “Just really a great move. But at least we get to watch it.”